Book talk: A memoir of the Australian Outback

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Jeff Popple reviews a fascinating memoir, An Alice Girl, of growing up in the Australian Outback. More of Jeff’s reviews can be found on his blog: murdermayhemandlongdogs.com

An Alice Girl by Tanya Heaslip

Allen & Unwin, $32.99

Tanya Heaslip had a childhood that was vastly different from that experienced by most Australians.

As she recounts in An Alice Girl, Tanya grew up in the late 1960s and early 1970s on a large cattle property just north of Alice Springs. Her parents were pioneers who established the station in an area where water was scarce, and all power was dependent on generators. It was remote and largely barren, but it was a place where Tanya and her siblings “could run free and wild in bare feet without a care”.

It was an early childhood full of new experiences and, as they grew older, Tanya and her siblings learnt to help around the property, including working the mobs of cattle with the stockmen. Often their schooling would be interrupted, especially during mustering time, when their father would come up to the school door and order them out if he needed help. With the constant turnover of stockmen, the children became ‘the core’ of his workforce.

Unlike her siblings, Tanya was a keen student and reader, and she enjoyed the lessons provided by the School of the Air. When she turned 12, it was with mixed emotions that she went away to boarding school and, eventually, university to study law.

Tanya tells the story of her life before boarding school with a refreshing honesty and humour, recalling the harsh times of bushfires and sheep mustering with heatstroke, as well as the good times and the friendships she forged.

As she notes, the 1960s and ‘70s in the bush were a vastly different time, with different attitudes to how hard children should work, physical punishment and the rights of women. In many ways, it was a tough childhood, but Tanya looks back on it with much affection and love.

A fascinating and moving story of an unusual childhood.

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